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FIRST-PERSON: The hard work

WASHINGTON (BP)–The 9/11 Commission reveals at best a nation unprepared; at worst a president and an administration more engaged with maintaining power than using it well on behalf of those who put him there in the first place.

What this commission actually illustrates is the all-consuming theater which American politics has become. Presidents now function as celebrities, and candidates for that office must transform into made-for-television stars to even be considered at all. Statecraft is now more art than science; more drama than dogma; more entertainment than reality.

Political theater, as this commission shows, always gives way to the hard work and grim realities of governance. Terrorism is not the only item on the docket of recent. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments regarding the Pledge of Allegiance and God’s proposed absence therein. The very definition of marriage is now under legislative scrutiny to actually proscribe in detail not what marriage means, but what marriage is. Welfare reform, originally passed in 1996, is up for re-authorization. Debates rage as to whether welfare recipients should be forced to work at all as a return for the government’s entitlement. Healthcare is an issue, who should have it and who should give it.

Amid this cacophony of political sounds, evangelicals raise their voices in Washington. They appear at the usual places. Hearings, debates, press conferences, the National Press Club, Old Ebbit Grill. All-engaged; all-concerned. Yet, what is missing amid the calls for constitutional amendments and the various position papers in play on Capitol Hill is a realization that the very authority and rationale for all government actions and programs is inherently ideological — even theological. In other words, the ideas which shape government emerge from competing perspectives which are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile.

Consensus — that all-important goal of the political game — is becoming more difficult to achieve. Why? Precisely because a goal of the Enlightenment thinkers has been realized. Public policy no longer requires a particular ethic as a motive for implementation. In fact, just the opposite is now the requirement. Policy debates are to be undertaken with little or no appeal to tradition or moral absolutes. Such statements are “religious” in nature and, as such, are not permitted to corrupt the modern ideas of the public good. Leave the real work to the political theorists and politicians. The “God-talk” is best left outside the legislative chamber.

If Christianity can be publicly caricatured as just another special interest group vying for a place at the table of political shenanigans, then the war is over and secular theorists have won. What should be constantly stressed is often something evangelical activism all too quickly fails to sound forth. All social policy positions are, by their very nature, ideological and advanced by value-laden motives. Someone’s values are being advanced. Just what those values are requires more than a “scientific” microscope. Questions such as, “Why is it right to give public money to the poor? Why must those funds be confiscated through a tax system where those in the society who are most productive subsidize those who are bereft of a work ethic? Is government the final authority on what is right and wrong?” bombard the public sector incessantly.

More foundationally, “What is right? What is good? What is law?” are, without doubt, religious issues. Policies are shaped around particular answers to such questions, and those answers are settled long before the public relations machines of modern politics are revved up.

Evangelicals often are accused of utilizing overt war room theologies portrayed as nothing more than cosmetic attempts to steer the ship of state toward religious extremism. To reverse that perception, Christian churches should be able to offer answers on issues such as abortion, gay “marriage,” stem cell research, government entitlement programs and economic theory. Moreover, they must be a people who labor to read Holy Scripture well and mobilize their churches to be commissioned agents of the biblical ethic.

Social policy is never advanced apart from politics. Yet, when churches and other para-church agencies battle only in the arena of the political, the theological domain has already been conceded to the enemies of the Christian Gospel. The great task remains both as opportunity and obligation for the Christian church. Will she do the hard work of thinking biblically and carefully speaking out to a culture of decadence or will she succumb to the spirit of the age and only involve herself, like her unredeemed counterparts, in the machinations of political theater? The world awaits the answer.
Douglas Baker is a writer who lives and works in Washington, D.C.

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